Taking stock of her life in 2014, Lauren Ruth Ward saw all positive signs: a loving boyfriend, a healthy bank account and a growing reputation as an Ellicott City hairstylist. It was, as she put it, "a beautiful life that most people would be very lucky to have."
And yet there was a nagging feeling of complacency she could no longer ignore.
"I couldn't shake wanting something different or more," Ward said on the phone earlier this week. "So I cleared the slate."
With a plan to turn a songbook of lyrics into a career, Ward left Fells Point at the start of 2015 for Los Angeles, where the 29-year-old singer-songwriter released her debut album, "Well, Hell," via Weekday Records/Sony. Released in February, the nine-song project has led to comparisons to powerhouse voices of the past including Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. She admits the moving-to-L.A.-to-pursue-music story is a cliché at this point, but it has also fulfilled Ward — who headlines a homecoming show at the Ottobar on Saturday — in ways staying put never could.
"It was just a completely different air," Ward said of California. "I was just like, 'OK cool, I can go out and see no one that I know.' Sometimes, that's just what you need."
She got to work — continuing to cut hair, while giving memorable performances at L.A. bars and clubs. Ward won crowds over with an ability to captivate vocally — thanks to a bold, committed delivery and a healthy dash of vibrato — while her backing band (guitarist Eduardo Rivera, bassist Livia Slingerland and percussionist India Pascucci) tapped into the familiar fuzz of rock and dream-pop that helped define the '60s and '70s.
Ward has heard the comparisons to her heroes like Joplin and Slick from fans young and old; both are hungry for her sound, she said.
"If they're an old head and they're like, 'Oh man, you just brought me back,' I feel honored," Ward said. "Or if it's a young girl who is just trapped in the '70s like myself, I'm just like '[expletive] yeah, sister. I'm here for you.' "
Growing up in Baltimore County — she lived in Essex, Dundalk and Perry Hall, before moving to Howard County for high school — Ward said she first asked her mother for a guitar at 13, after being impressed by Michelle Branch's "The Spirit Room."
While she starting writing songs a year later, Ward said her career path always appeared to be hairdressing.
"I just wanted to be a hairstylist so badly," Ward said. "That's a calling, when you love something that you're good at. … I don't believe in only doing one thing in this life."
As her profile has grown, Ward's time to cut hair in Los Angeles has shortened. But it's still a love of hers, so she created a solution at her home by nailing a mirror to a tree and setting up a chair nearby.
"I made a salon underneath some clementine trees in my backyard," Ward said. "As long as I have hands, I'll do hair."
By maintaining her first love of hairstyling, Ward keeps a piece of Maryland with her across the country. But there's no doubt the move to Los Angeles played a significant part in awakening the artist we hear and see today. It gave her the confidence to pursue music seriously, while also allowing Ward to explore her sexuality. (She's now engaged to Laura Pergolizzi, the singer-songwriter better known as LP.)
With the momentum of her music career building, Ward said she's filled with happiness and gratitude these days, but there's more work to be done. Though she praises artists like Florence Welch and Alison Mosshart of the Kills, Ward said there's an overall dearth of rock-oriented female voices in music today. She's eager to even out the imbalance.